IVAN ALEKSANDROVICH GONCHAROV (1812–91) was the son of a rich merchant family. He attended Moscow University for three years, graduating in 1834, and spent most of his life as a civil servant, eventually becoming a censor. Besides publishing three novels, Obyknovennaya istoriya (1847; tr. C. Garnett, A Common Story, 1917), Oblomov (1859; tr. D. Magarshack, 1954), and Obryv (1869; tr. anon., The Precipice, 1915), the main event in his otherwise monotonous life was a voyage to Japan (1852–5) as secretary to a Russian mission, described in Fregat Pallada (1858). Both in himself and in his environment, he saw the clash between dreamy traditionalism (which could be well-meaning and imaginative) and vigorous practicality (which could be prosaically limited). This conflict is worked out in A Common Story with ingenious artificiality and in The Precipice with uneven diffuseness; but in Oblomov it is the foundation of one of the most profound Russian novels.
DAVID MAGARSHACK was born in Riga, Russia, and educated at a Russian secondary school. He came to England in 1920 and was naturalized in 1931. After graduating in English literature and language at University College, London, he worked in Fleet Street and published a number of novels. For the Penguin Classics he translated Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamozov; Dead Souls by Gogol; and Lady with Lapdog and Other Tales by Chekhov. He also wrote biographies of Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev and Stanislavsky; and he is the author of Chekhov the Dramatist, a critical study of Chekhov’s plays, and a study of Stanislavsky’s system of acting. His last books to be published before his death were The Real Chekhov and a translation of Chekhov’s Four Plays.
MILTON EHRE is Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago. Among his publications are Oblomov and His Creator: The Life and Art of Ivan Goncharov (1973), Isaac Babel (1986), translations of the plays of Gogol and Chekhov and poems by Anna Akhmatova.
Translated by DAVID MAGARSHACK
with an Introduction by MILTON EHRE
Published by the Penguin Group
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Oblomov was first published in 1859
This translation first published in 1954
Reprinted with a new Chronology, Introduction and Further Reading 2005
Translation copyright 1954 by David Magarshack
Chronology, Introduction and Further Reading copyright £ 2005 by Milton Ehre
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1812 6 June (Old Style): Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov born in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), son of Alexander Ivanovich and Avdotya Matveyevna, the second of six children, four of whom survived. His paternal grandfather achieved gentry status in the middle of the eighteenth century through military service, but the family continued as merchants in a prosperous grain trade. Memoirists recall Goncharov’s mother as ‘severe’ and ‘suspicious’; Ivan, who loved her deeply, remembered an intelligent and caring woman. His father was successful and respected – he was several times elected mayor, though in despotic Russia the position offered limited responsibility. He was pious and melancholic. A grandson described ‘a psychically sick and unstable family’. Goncharov suffered from depression and for a period harboured paranoid enmity, most notoriously towards his friend and fellow novelist Ivan Turgenev.
1819 Father dies when Ivan is seven; education of children is assumed by Nicholas Tregubov, a boarder and a retired naval officer of aristocratic lineage and liberal views. His cosmopolitan background is in stark contrast to the traditionalism of a merchant family. The author remembers him as embodying ‘everything that is expressed by the English word “gentleman”’, but is also critical of his genteel impracticality and abstract idealism.
Ivan and his brother Nicholas are the first Goncharovs to receive a formal education. At the age of eight Ivan is sent to a boarding school run by a priest; he encounters literature (writing in the Goncharov household was limited to business papers), studies French and German.
1822 Enters Moscow Commercial School; the school offers a broad curriculum in liberal arts and sciences, but the teachers are inferior to those in schools for the gentry and the discipline is harsh.
1831 Enrolls at Moscow University. Among his classmates, besides the outstanding poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov, are men who were to shape the intellectual life of their era and the future of Russian thought: Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, Nicholas Stankevich, Konstantin Aksakov. Romanticism and German philosophical Idealism are in vogue; Goncharov does not participate in the famous discussion circles at the university. In the forties the Moscow circles split into camps of Westernizers and Slavophils.
1834 Graduates Moscow University.
1835 Begins 33-year career in the government bureaucracy. Moves to St Petersburg. Becomes a habitué of the Maykov salon; the Maykovs were a cultured aristocratic family – among its members were distinguished artists and poets. Goncharov shares their love of art for its own sake rather than for political ends.
1836–8 His first known literary works appear in the Maykovs’ family journal.
1840s Plans his three novels. All three deal with a young man seeking his place in the world, a reason for regarding them as a trilogy. According to the novelist, A Common Story is conceived in 1844, written in 1845 and finished the following year.
1846–8 Work on Oblomov begins, probably in 1847.
1847 A Common Story is published.
1849 ‘Oblomov‘s Dream’ is published. Plans The Precipice.
1852–5 Secretary to the admiral on an official journey to Japan and the Far East. Returns through Siberia.
1855 Falls in love with Elizaveta Tolstoy, whom he first met at the Maykovs in the early 1840s. She is the only known romantic relation of Goncharov’s life. She chooses someone else; he never marries.
1855–7 His account of his journey to the Far East, The Frigate Pallas: Notes of a Journey, is published as individual sketches.
1856 Begins service as a government censor.
1857 Summer: Writes bulk of the novel Oblomov.
1858 The Frigate Pallas: Notes of a Journey is published as a book.
1859 Oblomov is published. Goncharov accuses Turgenev of plagia
1860 A committee of prominent figures from the literary community finds no basis for the accusation.
1867 Retires from government service.
1869 The Precipice is published.
1878 Assumes responsibility for Alexandra Treygut, the wife of his manservant, and her three children, upon her husband’s death.
1890 Suffers a stroke.
1891 Dies after a brief illness. Leaves most of his estate to Alexandra Treygut and her three children.
Ilya Ilich Oblomov belongs to a line of outsized comic heroes who make us laugh and yet touch our sympathies – Don Quixote is an archetype. His monumental indolence has led Russians to turn him into a symbol of this supposed vice of the national character. Upon the novel’s appearance in 1859, a critic diagnosed his passivity as the illness of ‘oblomovitis’, and the term stuck. Lenin often employed it in tirades against inefficient bureaucrats.
Some critics – Russian and Western – have held a more benign view. Recent years have witnessed a tendency to vindicate Oblomov, to see his massive inertness (a good part of the book is over before he gets out of bed) as an antidote to the endless striving of Faustian man. He has even been proposed as a candidate for sainthood.
In over fifty years of literary activity Ivan Goncharov managed to write only three novels: Oblomov, A Common Story (1847) and The Precipice (1869; sometimes translated as The Ravine). He also left a handful of short stories and a charming account of his journey to Japan as a member of a naval expedition, The Frigate Pallas: Notes of a Journey (1858). Unlike genteel Oblomov, Goncharov worked for a living. Literature was the love of free time wrested from his duties as a bureaucrat in the government service, including a stint as a censor. He came from a family of merchants in the Volga town of Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk). The Goncharovs had officially risen to the status of gentry in the semi-feudal Russian system as a reward for the military service of Ivan’s grandfather, but they continued to earn their living from the grain trade. Almost all his fellow writers were from the landed gentry, the lucky ones living on revenues from their estates.
Goncharov came to maturity in the dark years of Nicholas I’s despotic rule (1825–55). He belonged to a remarkable generation, the so-called ‘men of the forties’. Dostoevsky, Turgenev and the poet Nekrasov appeared in print in that decade; Tolstoy followed on their heels in the early fifties; the influential critic Vissarion Belinsky and the brilliant Alexander Herzen were at the height of their powers.
The mood was anti-romantic, though romanticism proved more resilient than many supposed. Emotionalism, fantasy, metaphysical aches were out of fashion; sobriety, accuracy of depiction, ‘ordinary’ life were in. Russians were becoming more aware of their country’s economic and social backwardness. Their fathers had triumphed over Napoleon only to discover the higher standard of living of the defeated. ‘Action’, ‘work’, ‘deeds’ were slogans of the day. The son of practical-minded merchants responded to the new rhetoric, running the hero of his first novel through an education in the value of sensible activity and emotional restraint.
A Common Story follows a deflationary plot line characteristic of nineteenth-century realism, slipping from ‘great expectations’ to ‘lost illusions’. Alexander Aduyev, an innocent from the provinces, comes to the capital with high hopes of fortune and love, but stumbles through a series of comic mishaps. For emerging realism, parody was the major weapon against romanticism. (Even The Frigate Pallas may be read as a parody of expectations travellers garnered from books.) An aspiring writer, Aduyev identifies finding himself with finding a style. His inflated speech is mocked at every turn, especially by his uncle Peter, a successful but dry entrepreneur.
The novel ends with an ironic twist. Alexander, upon turning himself into a calculating businessman like his uncle, is surprised by the news that Peter in his young years also went through a heady romantic phase. Alexander has repeated his uncle’s career even to the backache that comes with success. Neither youthful enthusiasm nor middle-age scepticism are adequate responses to the problem of living. Instead of a didactic defence of the bourgeois virtues, Goncharov’s first novel is a wry comment on the way of the world, the ‘common story’ of growing up.
Though Oblomov turns on a similar opposition of practical action and sentimental drift, it is much richer, more deeply felt. It does not tell the story of a career to be made but of a life to be saved. The writing of A Common Story went smoothly – conceived in 1844, written in 1845 and wrapped up the following year, according to the author’s later testimony. It is an amusing book, but cerebral. Goncharov lived with Oblomov eleven to thirteen years before it finally appeared in 1859. It ‘ripened’ in his mind, he recalled. The bulk of it burst out of him in the summer of 1857 at the spa in Marienbad. It was the happiest moment of his life.
The extended period of writing is reflected in shifting styles. Part One, in its portraiture of a typical day in the life of Oblomov, is in the manner of what Russians call ‘the natural school’ – a first flower of realism. The comic zaniness in the relation of master and servant owes much to Gogol, the towering figure of the time. Isolated in his cramped room, the outside world blocked out by dusty windows, endlessly squabbling with his manservant Zakhar – the two seem married to each other – Oblomov fears his life may have ended before it started. ‘Why am I like this?’ is the question that sets the novel in motion. In the famous chapter entitled ‘Oblomov’s Dream’ his dreaming mind returns in nostalgia to the lost paradise of childhood, a time when the habits of ordinary life could be fully satisfying. Kitchen, barnyard and meadow are apprehended with poetic warmth; domesticity is granted mythic significance. In his ‘Dream’ Oblomov also sets out to discover the roots of his illness. At a dead end, his recourse is to self-knowledge. As in psychoanalytic theory, childhood gives us the objects of our desire and the source of our disease.
Upon awakening he makes a desperate attempt to join the world. By 1857, when the story of Oblomov’s love for Olga was written, the grotesqueries of the natural school were long out of fashion. The manner of the summer romance is delicate, poetical in the manner of Turgenev, the leading novelist of the late fifties. Oblomov has escaped his shabby seclusion and entered a world of aristocratic refinement. The figure of Olga often melts into lyrical images: a sprig of lilac, radiant light, the aria Casta diva. She promises grace.
Readers have found Stolz unconvincing but his friendship with Oblomov is important. They have been close since childhood. Each represents, we are told, half of life. The half-German Stolz (the name means ‘pride’) is all work, discipline, ambition (the Peter Aduyev of this novel). Oblomov, for all his sorrows, is blessed with the passive virtues: delicacy, imagination, tenderness. ‘Oblomov’ comes from the Russian word that means ‘fragment’, and they are both fragmented men, each looking longingly to the other for what he lacks. For all the mocking of romanticism, Goncharov, like other ‘men of the forties’, held on to its dream of human wholeness. ‘Give me man’, he has Oblomov cry out.
In the last section the loving rendering of everyday life and the dream-like atmosphere of ‘Oblomov’s Dream’ return, as we enter the homely domain of Agafya Matveyevna. Among the symmetrical pairings of Goncharov’s fiction – Peter and Alexander Aduyev, Stolz and Oblomov – are Olga and Agafya, the aristocratic beauty and the nurturing woman from the lower classes.
The novel is acutely conscious of time. In his lonely bachelor apartment Oblomov tries to shut out the common sense of time moving in a straight line, its destination – death. In his ‘Dream’ he evokes a mythical time of eternal returns, where the seasons come and go, men sow and reap, and nothing ever changes. The summer romance seeks to escape the anxiety of change by another kind of permanence – a frozen lyrical moment, a song that never dies. The concluding pages accept the inevitability of death but see life, on the analogy of geological rhythms, as maintaining a perpetual balance. In one place mountains crumble; elsewhere the sea piles up
Goncharov started The Precipice in 1849, when he was still in the early stages of Oblomov. The writing dragged on for twenty years. He rushed to Marienbad periodically, but the inspiration of the glorious summer of ’57 would not return. He was stuck. He had no trouble getting the words down but he couldn’t find a principle by which to connect them.
Some time around 1860 he decided to change his procedure. A Common Story and Oblomov are biographies of a soul. They describe the course of a life, the former as part of an entertaining if thin comedy of manners, the latter with warmth of feeling and psychological penetration. Goncharov began The Precipice with similar intentions – to portray in the person of Boris Raysky ‘the insides, the heart of an artist’, but he couldn’t pull it off. In midstream, some time around 1860, he decided to accommodate changing trends on the Russian literary scene and write a political novel in a dramatic rather than biographical form. The Precipice belongs to a wave of anti-nihilist fiction (radicals were dubbed nihilists). Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Dostoyevsky’s The Devils (also translated as The Possessed) are two outstanding examples of the tendency.
Goncharov’s effort is not in their league. The Precipice is overwrought and melodramatic – a far cry from the reflective manner and poetic warmth of Oblomov. It is also humourless. Living in an autocratic society that did not allow the give and take of open dialogue, many Russians saw society as divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’. Political discourse turned moralistic. The nihilist of The Precipice has bad manners and is licentious. In Oblomov the gentry estate, the central institution of Old Russia, is an ambiguous place – a dreamland of pastoral peace and an island isolated from possibilities of moral and intellectual growth. In The Precipice it is a bulwark of stability in a world of uncertain passions. Great works of art intrigue us with their complexity. Oblomov is among them.